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Districts that had been rated 'F' in 2014 improve despite general drop in test scores

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Many of Mississippi's public schools will be able to boast of high marks for one more year under Mississippi's A-to-F school rating system, but state officials continue to warn that grades could fall sharply next year.

Under grades announced Friday by the Mississippi Department of Education, no district currently operating received an F. Fourteen with an F in 2013 raised their grades. At the other end of the scale, 19 districts retained A ratings — but 16 would have lost them without a waiver allowing districts to keep last year's grade if this year's results would have knocked it down.

State and federal authorities granted the waiver to encourage districts to change their curriculum to line up with the Common Core State Standards.

Mississippi administered tests in spring 2014 that were designed to measure learning under a previous set of standards. Without the waiver, districts might have delayed changing to Common Core.

As a result, scores on the Mississippi Curriculum Tests fell in almost all grades and subjects when results were released in August. Those test scores, along with graduation rates, are used to calculate school grades.

This spring, Mississippi will give new tests developed by a multi-state group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers. That could result in a further test-score decline.

"We know the PARCC assessment is going to be very rigorous," said Pat Ross, state director of accountability services. "The scores have gone down almost everywhere it's been given."

Mississippi officials had wanted to give a waiver for a second year to cover the transition to new Common Core tests, but federal officials denied that request. Superintendent Carey Wright said she remained hopeful that the U.S. Department of Education might change its mind.

"There are a lot of people who are having these conversations," Wright said.

No district currently operating received an F, although Hinds County Agricultural High School, which closed at the end of the last year, was rated as failing. Wilkinson County increased its grade from an F to a C. There were also 10 D-rated districts that increased their grades to C.

Of districts rated A, B or C in 2013, 76 would have seen their grades fall without the waiver. The Kosciusko district would have fallen from A to C, but Superintendent Tony McGee said he was confident that his teachers made the right move by switching to Common Core. He said the transition to PARCC might be rough

"They know the curriculum is harder, it's tougher, it's more extensive," McGee said. "Kosciusko has always had high expectations for academic achievement. We'll rise to the top given a year or two."

Only three districts would have been rated A — Clinton, Corinth and Lamar County. Of those, Corinth and Lamar County are teaching alternative curriculums, and their grades were calculated using somewhat subjective methods. Traditionally, Mississippi only gave out a handful of top-level ratings, but the A bracket widened considerably in 2013 because many district ratings benefited from including graduation measures.

A total of 41 districts were rated D, meaning charter school operators can propose schools there without district approval. There were also 24 individual schools that got F grades. While those schools can make improvement plans this year, the state would be required to take over the individual schools next year if they fail again.

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